Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pro: Scientists as Educators and Citizens

Conservation biologists can be advocates. The word conservation means to preserve something for the future. That means the goal is to keep things like they are now. Therefore, the word conservation has a value connotation. If the word conservation itself contains a value judgment, then how could conservation biology not contain an inherent value judgment? A science having a value judgment is not as problematic as Kai Chan makes it out to be. If a science itself has a value bias, then the scientists working in that field naturally, will also hold that value. It should be easy to acknowledge that while people generally consider science unbiased or objective, all science holds at least one value in common—knowledge. Science and scientists strive to better understand the universe, that behavior represents a value. If we can acknowledge that physics has an inherent value system, we should also respect that conservation biology holds certain values, as labeled by the adjective conservation. Therefore we should regard conservation biologists as experts in the field of preserving the Earth’s natural resources and on the value of conservation.
As experts on conservation, conservation biologists have a duty to be advocates. Their role in the world is to study the world and better understand it. Knowledge must be shared, otherwise it would be lost. If we didn’t have scholarly journals scientific progress would almost never be made. Information informs our scientific processes and allows us to progress. Knowledge fuels progress, so if we want our society to make progress on conservation we should give society knowledge of conservation. With the extinction death clock ticking, it is vital that society make rapid conservation progress. In order to speed this progress along conservation biologists should be advocates, dutifully spreading information to the people and the powerful so that personal choices and policy can be informed by science.
It is dangerous to make uninformed decision about conservation. Public health can be endangered if the public is not informed about toxicology from oil spills and other pollution, disease outbreak in potential vector species and, in the long term, the collapse of our ecosystem would mean an end to ecosystem functions we rely on for food, clean water, breathable air and a hospitable climate. The policies that control how the government regulates corporations and individuals are written by elected officials who respond to the public’s demands. A public that is well informed about conservation issues will choose candidates who represent their views more accurately. Conservation biologists should help educate the public through free lectures and by helping journalists accurately represent science. If educating the public about current issues is considered advocacy, then, yes, scientists should be advocates.  
However, scientists should not be advocates that help write legislation. Scientists are not law experts and should not write laws. However, part of a scientist’s job is to spread knowledge. A scientist can come and give presentations to the legislators, state their scientific opinion, and encourage a discussion of the science where the representatives can ask questions or make their own points.
Scientists should also be able to act as advocates through social media, organizations or street protests. In all of these settings a conservation biologist could help spread accurate information to more people. Then people could make more informed judgments. If everyone has the right to free speech, congregation, and peaceful protest, then that “everyone” includes scientists. Uninformed opinions can be shared openly on the internet. To counteract that misinformation it should be important to have informed opinions of scientists shared too. Scientists don’t have to engage in any of these activities, but they can if they want to.

A key claim against advocacy is that it will make scientists biased, and that their political opinion will impact their work. Scientists are already trained not to be biased, but some scientists do go bad and try to spread misinformation, sometimes because their funding comes from a certain organization and they have a conflict of interests. However, scientists must state any conflict of interests at the end of their papers. 

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